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New York Guitar Star Homeboy Steve Antonakos Releases His Best, Most Eclectic Album

If you were a kid in New York back in the 80s, you had pretty much unlimited opportunities to see live music, theoretically at least. Sure, you could get into any club you wanted to: no venue owner was going to turn away a paying customer. The idea of bouncers hassling club patrons for identification was almost but not quite as faraway as the Orwellian nightmare of face recognition technology.

But getting into clubs could be expensive. Those who weren’t there may not realize just how much free live music, much of it outdoors, there was. For the sake of argument, let’s say you carried your beer into Union Square one evening. Everybody drank on the street back then since the implementation of “broken windows policing” as a means of making a revenue stream out of those least able to pay – kids and ethnic minorities, mostly – hadn’t gone beyond the drawing board.

Maybe you were drawn in by the twangy “rig-rock” sounds of the Blue Chieftains, who were doing a afterwork show on the plaza at the south end of the park. Maybe you wondered who was firing off that downward cascade of high-octane honkytonk guitar in that one big, stomping anthem.

That was Homeboy Steve Antonakos. The Blue Chieftains live on as a memory of a better time in New York history, a prestige piece of his resume. Since then, he’s played with a bunch of Americana outfits as well as the richly tuneful Greek psychedelic bands Magges and Dervisi, the latter with his fellow Greek-American guitar luminary George Sempepos. But Antonakos isn’t just one of New York’s great guitarists: he’s a strong songwriter too. His latest album, Bodega Rock is streaming at Bandcamp. His next gig is on March 30 at 9 PM at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights. where he does double duty playing his own material and then takes a turn on lead guitar with Drina Seay, New York’s answer to Neko Case. The closest train is the 7 to 74th St., but you can also take any train to the nearby Roosevelt Ave. stop.

The album opens with the Stonesy title track, guest guitarist Tim Heap fueling a shout-out to the 24-hour suppliers of Slim Jims, Bambus, beer and neighborly good cheer that help make this city so great. Antonakos sings the wry, aphoristic, ragtime-flavored The Improbability of Love backed by Bruce Martin’s piano, Seay a one-woman gospel choir.

Jeff Schiller’s smoky tenor sax wafts through the wistful shuffle Make It Swing, Antonakos raising a glass to an early influence in both jazz and pregaming. Seay sings the acoustic Americana ballad There’s Always Yesterday with tender restraint against Neil Thomas’ lilting accordion. Martin’s flurrying drums and Skip Ward’s bass propel One of Us, a pretty hilarious catalog of New York characters who might or might not exist. Awash in stormy layers of acoustic and electric guitars, He’s Still Not Over Her follows a much more ominous tangent.

Antonakos’ shivery lapsteel permeates the cynically shuffling It’s a Beautiful Day and its Sixteen Tons allusions; it might be the best song on the album. Seay ought to sing lead on this one: she’d hit it out of the ballpark.

With steel guitar and banjo lingering ominously in the background, the stark Nashville gothic ballad Poisoned Well is another standout. The album winds up with the gorgeously anthemic It Takes Time, another duet with Seay.

While we’re at it, could you imagine an album called 7-11 Rock? Actually, yes: it would be by Journey.

Drina Seay Sings Haunting and Happy Americana at 2A

Drina Seay is one of the best-kept secrets in the New York Americana scene. Revered by her peers, she earned a reputation as a go-to harmony singer and then all of a sudden was fronting a killer band with a more-or-less regular residency at Lakeside Lounge. With Lakeside gone and Rodeo Bar out of the music business, she’s been without a home base, but she’s kept at it. She and the band – Homeboy Steve Antonakos on lead guitar, Monica “L’il Mo” Passin on bass and Eric Seftel on drums – were at the top of their game upstairs at 2A this past weekend, playing a characteristically rich mix of noir 60s rock, luridly torchy ballads, some janglerock and a little oldschool C&W.

The high point of the show was the slowest song, Chase My Blues Away. It’s a real showstopper, and Seay pulled out all the stops, beginning with just her own solo vocal-and-guitar intro before the drums came in, slow and dirgey. This time the song was more about the blues than chasing them away, at least until Antonakos did that midway through with a thrashing,  jaggedly menacing solo.

Seay kept the darkly twangy songcraft going, through a relatively new, enigmatic breakup song, part southwestern gothic, party noir Vegas shuffle, lit up by Antonakos’ eerie tarantella leads. His steely minimalist fills paired off against Seay’s crystalline, wounded vocals on Waking Up Crying. Then he played blazing slide guitar on the menacingly bouncy kiss-off anthem All For You over Passin’s torchy Pink Panther-style walking bassline.

Seay told the crowd that she’d written the unselfconsciously gorgeous, lushly nocturnal, oldtimey-flavored I Couldn’t Have Dreamed You on her ukulele, so she capoed her guitar way up in order to play the sweetly coy central hook. The rest of the set was more upbeat: the Sugar Magnolia-tinged Watcha Gonna Do; a slinky, nocturnal, Creedence-ish swamp rock tune; and a couple of animated, garage rock-flavored Antonakos tunes. They closed by taking Delaney & Bonnie’s early 70s top 40 hit Never Ending Song of Love full circle, back to the country that those Brits only wish they knew well enough to really get it right the first time around. Seay’s next show is Sept 19 at 9 PM at the Way Station in Ft. Greene; Antonakos is at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights tonight with his 1920s style Greek gangsta blues band Dervisi.

Catchy Americana Tunesmithing from Brilliant Guitarist Homeboy Steve Antonakos

Homeboy Steve Antonakos is one of the half-dozen best guitarists in New York. He can shift from a flurry of elegant jazz chords, to beery honkytonk, to spiky, reverbtoned surf rock, to haunting Middle Eastern-flavored lines in the span of a few seconds and make it all seem completely natural. As you would expect, he gets plenty of work. Acts he currently plays with include 1920s-style Greek hashish-folk band Dervisi, cajun rockers the Dirty Water Dogs, brilliant Americana songwriter/chanteuse Drina Seay’s band and possibly others: put it this way, the guy’s in demand. But he’s also a solo artist. He’s got a new album, Rock N Roll Sun – streaming at Bandcamp – and an album release show at the Parkside on July 21 at 7 PM.

To Antonakos’ further credit, the album is just as much about tunesmithing as it is about the guitars. The title track opens it – it’s a wry look at how audiences live vicariously through musicians, especially if they’ve gotten to the point where they’ve left their own dreams behind. Behind Antonakos – who’s really done a good job pulling his vocals together here – there’s Neil Thomas on piano, Skip Ward on bass, Kenny Soule on drums and Seay on characteristically crystalline, spine-tingling vocal harmonies.

I’ll Find a Way, a swaying four-chord purist pop song, takes the point of view of a guy who isn’t a Humphrey Bogart or Steve McQueen but still has enough in him to save the day. At the Treehouse sends a shout-out to Tom Clark’s Sunday night Americana jamboree upstairs at 2A, capped off by a lively, bluesy dobro solo.

My Bones Will Remember, a pensive when-I-get-old narrative inspired by a trip to Greece to an ancestral graveyard, opens with churchy organ and builds to a slow crescendo fueled by Antonakos’ terse slide work. On I Don’t Wanna Be Wanted, a ridiculously simple, catchy bluegrass-tinged number, Antonakos and Seay blend voices to create a tender vintage C&W scenario.

Antonakos follows the wistful ballad December Roses with the album’s best track, I Don’t Miss Summer, a killer garage-pop hit driven by Bruce Martin’s roller-rink organ. Tomorrow’s Girl nicks the changes from Bob Seger’s Turn the Page and turns it into a brooding, restless acoustic Nashville gothic tune. After that, there’s Live it Down, a shuffling oldschool garage rock tune co-written with Seay and done as janglerock, and then the album’s closing cut, Better Off With the Blues, an elegantly swinging solo acoustic jazz tune with Django Reinhardt echoes.

Karen Hudson’s Long-Awaited Sonic Bloom Finally Busts Out

With her edgy wit, elegant stage presence and a great band behind her, songwriter Karen Hudson has been a mainstay of the New York Americana scene since the early zeros. She’s playing the long-awaited release show for her new album Sonic Bloom tonight, June 13 at her usual hangout, Rodeo Bar at 7 PM sharp. Eric “Roscoe” Ambel – whose legendary Del-Lords have a killer new album, Elvis Club, out as well – produced it with his usual purist touch and played guitar on it. Hudson’s brilliant lead guitarist Homeboy Steve Antonakos, also of surf rockers the Byzan-Tones, zydeco crew the Dirty Water Dogs and Greek psychedelic revivalists Magges joins along with pedal steel player Skip Krevens, bassist and Steve Martin sideman Skip Ward, and Tom Curiano and Kenny Soule sharing drum duties.

“Kicking out some rock, making room for roots” is the opening line of the first track, Late Bloomer and pretty much describes this album. Over a steady backbeat and a tasty blend of twang and grit, Hudson reminds that “Just when your dead flowers have wilted in their vase, I’ll be blooming in your garden some sunny day.” Call Me is not the Blondie hit but a restlessly pulsing Laurel Canyon rock tune. Better Half of Me sets wry honkytonk wit and high lonesome pedal steel to a steady four-on-the-floor rock beat, while St. John’s Isle pays homage to the solidity of the man in Hudson’s life, who is “a rock in the middle of the ocean, while I swim in search of frivolous emotion.”

The best song on the album, Mama Was a Train Wreck looks back in shellshocked anger at dysfunctional family hell, reaching fever pitch with a smoldering Antonakos guitar solo. Better Days makes a good segue with its similarly slow-burning, minor-key angst: it’s sort of an imploring attempt to break through to someone like the monster in the previous song before the guy’s too far gone. A Woman Knows These Things offers some no-nonsense, vintage Tammy Wynette-style advice to a guy with a wandering eye, while Daydream looks at the other side of the equation via a regretful country ballad. Hudson sticks with the classic country on Dead Letter File, memorializing someone Hudson regarded as a beloved brother. The album winds up with the catchy, Byrdsy, janglerocking Beauty of the Now, co-written with Antonakos.

Throughout the album, Hudson’s matter-of-fact vocals carry the lyrics with passion, soul, and rich dynamics, from an insistent wail to a warm, caressing timbre: she’s never sung better. Who is the audience for this? Fans of acts as diverse as Miranda Lambert, Gram Parsons and Loretta Lynn in her prime…and for that matter, Loretta Lynn now.

Getting Caught Up on Concerts

Much as gentrification has dealt a crippling blow to music and the arts in general in this city, a gritty individualistic spirit persists. “Raided all my hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire in a night that never ends,” LJ Murphy intoned ominously as his band the Accomplices played the careening noir blues of his song This Fearful Town the other night after the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. The nattily attired rocker  (black suit, porkpie hat, red tie for Valentine’s Day) embodies everything that’s good about un-trendy rock in this town. With Tommy Hochscheid’s Stax/Volt guitar and Patrick McLellan’s piano firing off savage ripples and rumbles over a swinging rhythm section, Murphy romped through a mix of his signature surreal, blues-infused, urbane urban narratives. They opened with the slinky menace of Another Lesson I Never Learned and encored with Barbed Wire Playpen, a rather gleefully scampering tale about a Wall Street one-percenter with a fondness for the dungeon. In between Murphy chronicled eerily delirious rust belt crowds dancing away their doom to a stripper-fronted jazz band, clueless bridge-and-tunnel happy hour crowds yucking it up, along with several postapocalyptic scenes and would-be stalkers contemplating their next moves or lack thereof. As much as Murphy’s white-knuckle intensity and goodnatured energy onstage are contagious, his songs are all ultimately in the here-and-now, and they don’t paint a pretty picture.

At Salon #13 the previous week, chanteuse Drina Seay aired out some new, torchy, sophisticated country tunes and then joined her brilliant lead guitarist, Homeboy Steve Antonakos, for a set of his own purist, sardonic janglerock and Americana songs, including some pensive tracks from his latest ep. Other highlights of the past couple of salons included angst-fueled Americana rock and southwestern gothic by the Downward Dogs’ Joe Yoga, gorgeously lyrical chamber pop and art-rock by Serena Jost, creepily gleeful murder ballads and jaunty original bluegrass/C&W by Kelley Swindall and mysterious blues-infused narratives (and a pretty hilarious Glimmer Twins interlude) by the Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman.

Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. have a monthly residency at Otto’s and a pretty much monthly, sometimes more than monthly gig at Rodeo Bar. Much as their satire of early 50s pre-rock hillbilly sounds is pretty hilarious – they’d kill on Broadway – their most recent gig on 14th Street was a reminder of just what a good straight-up country band these guys are, never mind the shtick. Michael McMahon’s a hell of a lead guitarist, with a snarling but sophisticated edge – and the band brought munchies, a big basket of snacks for every table. Thanks guys!

Among New York acts, nobody’s bigger in Peru than Chicha Libre. Which on face value seems pretty absurd, until you consider that they’re probably the world’s greatest psychedelic cumbia band. A lot of us take their weekly Monday residency/live rehearsal on their home turf at Barbes for granted, and we shouldn’t – they’ve never sounded more tight or energized, and they’ve been tight and energetic for years. A December show got shut down early because of a bass amp malfunction: bassist Nicholas Cudahy’s pulse is so subtle and simple and hypnotic, and so essential to the band. Too bad, because they had really been on a roll up to that point. A show in in the middle of last month was packed with dancers, and the band fed off the energy, romping through a mix of classic Peruvian covers and originals ranging from keyboardist Josh Camp’s creepy vamp Tres Pasajeros, to frontman Olivier Conan’s cynical, Gainsbourg-esque L’Age D’Or.

Out of print for years, the Mumbo Gumbo album is now available digitally (and streaming at co-frontman Joe Flood’s Bandcamp page). Last month, the band reunited for a one-off cd release show at Rodeo Bar. The crowd was a surreal mix of drunken Baruch kids and fans of Flood and accordionist Rachelle Garniez who’d come out to see them in their old Americana project, possibly for the first time. Word on the street is that the sonic issues that plagued the early part of the show were resolved as it went on. In the beginning, much as it was a pain to hear the band having to jostle with the crowd for volume, it was a lot of fun to be able to catch Garniez doing the enigmatic Swimming Pool Blue and the sly, innuendo-fueled New Dog with some old friends, more rustically and rawly than she usually does them. And Flood was on his game with his violin, and his guitar, and his big voice too.

Indie classical string quartet Ethel – which has undergone some personnel changes in recent months – has a weekly Friday night residency at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can hear them as you walk in. On a dim, rainy evening, listening to the sound rise as you go up the stairs evokes a magical old-world Europe of the mind. To fully appreciate what they’re doing, you have to get closer to the action, i.e. along the rail where they’re playing in the bar space itself. A random, recent misty night found them inviting colleagues from other ensembles and exploring the classical and the baroque as well as the adventurous avant garde sounds which have come to define them. If the idea of the Kronos Quartet intrigues you but all the electronic bells and whistles leave you cold, this group will hit the spot.

Melvin Van Peebles has to be close to eighty now, but he still plays regularly with his psychedelic funk band Laxative, which includes members of Burnt Sugar. One of the final shows at Zebulon  before they closed their doors for good saw the mordantly funny indie filmmaker/personality in low-key, smoldering mode, bantering with the crowd and making his way through a sometimes wryly sexy, sometimes corrosive mix of tunes from his cult classic albums from the 70s. As usual, the band behind him – featuring bassist Jared Nickerson and baritone saxophonist Moist Paula Henderson – gave him a dynamically-charged groove to croon over.

Morricone Youth have a singer now. The elegant, darkly torchy presence of Karla Rose Moheno out in front of the cult favorite film soundtrack band has not only transformed their sound but also has opened up a whole different repertoire beyond the already vast Italian film themes that they’ve been mining since they were a mainstay on the Lower East Side about ten years ago. Their most recent show at Otto’s – yeah, this is going back a ways – featured a lot of unfamiliar material, some of it on the jazzy side, some with a lushly psychedelic rock feel. These days, when they’re not in Europe, they’re more likely to be playing a theatre than a rock club, which makes a lot of sense.

And it was good to catch a bit of energetic third-stream jazz group the Trio of Oz at one of those multi-act extravaganzas at the booking agents’ convention last month. Pianist Rachel Z is a force of nature, but she can be plaintive when the song calls for it. Her version of King of Pain far outdid the Police at brooding poignancy.

Much as the recent slate of shows has been a lot of fun, there have been some duds. That enticing, by-invitation-only multi-piano fest in midtown turned out to be a disappointment despite the starpower of the players involved, for lack of solid material: garbage in, garbage out, no matter how many fantastic fingers might be playing it. There was another show on the east side recently that promised to explore the apocalyptic effects of natural disasters: it turned out to be a Euro-jazz band vamping endlessly behind amateurish videos and awkward, stilted poetry. And another semi-recent show featuring a member of a famously creepy indie band turned out to be a lot more indie than creepy, a nonstop barrage of dorkiness from the wannabe bass player/composer whose spastic, sort-of-indie-classical, sort-of-indie-rock stuff was being put on display.

Sunday Salon 8: New Blood, Old Blood, Bloodbath?

Not quite. The final Sunday Salon of the year at Zirzamin featured both usual and unusual suspects. It was good to have Joe Yoga, frontman of the ferocious, southwestern gothic-tinged Downward Dogs join in and play a couple of songs, the first a fiery minor-key number that screamed out for a band behind him, the second somewhat more subdued. Carol Lipnik also contributed a couple of considerably quieter songs that were just as passionate in their enveloping, hypnotic lushness. Playing guitar, she kept time with an Indian ankle bracelet she’d picked up in Jackson Heights. And from a spectator’s perspective, maybe the most interesting moment of the evening happened off to the side, when those two artists joined in a spontaneous duet on the old Jefferson Airplane psych-folk song Coming Back to Me. Neither Carol Lipnik nor Joe Yoga sound anything like the Airplane; just to see that both of them knew the song was cool.

The rest of the salon was fueled by passion and booze. Lorraine Leckie sat on a table facing the crowd and channeled lurid menace, making the need for a mic redundant. LJ Murphy put on his thousand-yard stare, completely locked into showtime mode for the surreal nocturne Waiting by the Lamppost and the big crowd-pleaser Barbed Wire Playpen, a tale of Wall Street dungeons and dungeonesses. John Hodel represented for the oldschool barroom contingent with tales of sordidness and not a little menace. Homeboy Steve Antonakos then followed with a solid hour of solo acoustic songs ranging from gypsy rock – based on a Georges Brassens lick nicked from his old pal Joe Flood – to the surreal bluegrass ballad Baptized in Rain, to the wryly gorgeous janglerock hit I Don’t Miss Summer. Before his set, torchy Americana chanteuse Drina Seay joined him for a couple of catchy, sophisticated countrypolitan tunes. While Antonakos didn’t take any of the sizzling solos that he’s known for, as a member of psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7 or Greek rembetiko surf band the Byzan-Tones, he’d break up the songs with subtle changes in the chord voicings, or run a half a bar of a bluesy riff, or fingerpick delicate filigrees in the slower tunes. It was a clinic in purposeful, impactful playing. Antonakos returns to the featured slot here at 7 PM on Feb 3.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Jan 6 is by Canadian gothic rocker/chanteuse Lorraine Leckie.

Brilliant Sideman Releases Another Solo Record

In the postapocalyptic world (not) of 12/22/12, what could there possibly be to listen to? Homeboy Steve Antonakos’ new acoustic album. As a sideman, Antonakos’ resume is second to none. Right now he plays with psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, psychedelic surf rock band the Byzan-tones, haunting Greek psychedelic band Magges (a pattern is starting to emerge here, no?), torchy Americana siren Drina Seay’s band and also cajun rockers the Dirty Water Dogs. Somehow he finds the time to write songs and record them. He put out an album of several of his signature clever, wry Americana-flavored tunes a couple of years ago, and now he’s got a new one, all of it streaming at his Bandcamp site.

It’s the rare Xmas-themed album that doesn’t suck. The first track, a country waltz titled Poor Santa, finds the guy passsed out at the North Pole, where the the ho-ho-ho’s had taken their toll. As it turns out, the guy’s pension’s gone, his HMO won’t cover his health problems – in other words, this is a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with the world right now and in typical Homeboy Steve fashion, it’s funny – the jokes are too good to give away.

Then there’s December Roses, a pensively optimistic fingerpicked country-folk ballad. The big hit here is I Don’t Miss Summer, which screams out for a good janglerock band to cover it. This acoustic version only hints at the deliciousness of where a couple of Rickenbacker guitars could take these catchy changes, and Antonakos’ cynical lyric makes a good contrast with the sunniness of the tune. The ep ends with Dear Santa, a psych-folk tune with a weird twist – any way you look at it, it’s creepy and gets creepier as it goes along. Homeboy Steve Antonakos plays the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin at 7 PM tomorrow, Dec 23.